What's in the Air?

Air pollution is a menace that has been on the rise. Here's how you can safeguard your family against air pollution.

By Gokul Chandrasekar

What's in the Air?


The quality of air in India is the worst in the world, says data from the 2014-15 research done by WHO (World Health Organization). This can have a severe impact on your child’s health and well-being. It’s time to take stock of the situation.

Gardiner Harris, the South Asia Correspondent of The New York Times decided to leave India after his eight-year-old son suffered from severe respiratory distress, thanks to Delhi’s air quality. His son’s lung capacity had reduced by almost fifty per cent within eight months of moving to the city. “So many of our friends have decided to leave that the American Embassy School — this city’s (Delhi’s) great expat institution — is facing a steep drop in admissions next fall,” wrote Harris in The New York Times before leaving India.

Harris’ decision cannot be interpreted as an overreaction to the third world environment. Our own government has accepted air pollution as a problem that needs to be immediately tackled. The Delhi government, earlier this month, conducted a two-week car rationing experiment to mitigate the problem. While the move received mixed response, it is a key indicator that urgent action is required against air pollution. Scientific studies have confirmed this fact too. Let us look at some of these studies to understand this issue better.

How murky is our future?

World Health Organization has set certain standards regarding air pollution that it considers as the ‘maximum recommended’ value. In other words, anything above this set standard is injurious to human health and environment. As far as developed countries are concerned, the standards followed are far more stringent than what is recommended by WHO.

Recent numbers indicate that air pollution in Delhi is six times higher than the ‘safe to breathe’ limits. The air in Delhi is, in fact, twice as polluted as that in Beijing – the city often mistaken in the international media as the most polluted in the world. Such a level of high pollution has severely dented the quality of life for children in our cities.

A study to understand the long-term effects of air pollution on school-going children conducted by Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute, Kolkata, over a period of three years, from 2002-05, revealed shocking results. The results of the survey among 11,000 children were tabled in the Lok Sabha last April.

It showed that of 5,718 children tested for lung function in Delhi, 43.5per cent had poor or restrictive function. Cases of asthma, among children surveyed in Delhi, were also double of what was observed in lesser polluted regions of the country. We also have data based on air quality monitoring by Greenpeace India, which was released last month. It showed that the quality of air around school campuses was no better. “Data gathered over seven days from seven schools across Delhi, shows that the level of air pollution inside the schools was as much as 11 times higher than the safety limits prescribed by WHO,” says Sunil Dahiya, campaigner, Greenpeace India.

So, is this a public health crisis that concerns only Delhi? Not really. For, according to a study conducted by WHO in 2014, 13 of the 20 most-polluted cities in the world are in India. The fact that these 13 cities are in North India does not indicate that the problem is confined to a particular region. Pollution levels in cities like Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai have also been extremely high in recent years. Studies have also shown that children in polluted cities are at the highest risk of facing multiple health hazards. Here’s how their health is affected by pollution:

Common air pollutants and their impact on children’s health

Particulate Matter (PM): A complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets; these particles vary in size (coarse: 2.5-10 micrometres in diameter; fine: 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter) and easily pass through the throat and nose, and enter the lungs. They cause serious health issues like decreased lung function, aggravated asthma and heart attacks. They can even lead to premature death in people with decreased heart or lung function.

Ozone: Not to be confused with the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere, the ‘bad ozone’ is a result of emissions from industrial facilities, vehicle exhaust and chemical solvents. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, like inflammation and damage of airways, shortness of breath and aggravation of asthma.

Carbon monoxide: It can cause harmful health effects by reducing oxygen delivery to the body's organs (like the heart and brain) and tissues. At extremely high levels, it can even cause death.

Sulphur dioxide: The largest sources are emissions from fossil fuel combustion in power plants, industrial facilities and vehicle exhausts. Exposure to sulphur dioxide for more than five minutes can cause an array of adverse respiratory problems including bronchoconstriction.

Lead: The major sources of Lead emissions are fuels used in vehicles. Once taken into the body, Lead distributes throughout the body in the blood and is accumulated in the bones. Depending on the level of exposure, Lead can adversely affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system.

Nitrogen oxides: Again, common sources of this gas are emissions from vehicles and power plants. Short-term exposure to this gas, ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours, can cause adverse respiratory effects including airway inflammation in healthy people and increased respiratory problems in people with asthma. Exposure to high concentrations of this gas near roadways affects children, elderly and people with asthma.

{Compiled based on data from US Environmental Protection Agency and Central Pollution Control Board, India websites}

Why are children more vulnerable?

According to a training manual issued by the WHO, children’s unique vulnerability to respiratory diseases is mainly because of the following reasons:

  • Higher exposures because they spend more time outside
  • Inhale more pollutants per kilogram of body weight than adults
  • Because airways are narrower, irritation can result in proportionately greater airway obstruction

Now, doesn’t that place a huge responsibility on us to ensure our children breathe clean air?

Protecting your child from toxic fumes:

At the policy level, environmental and public health experts have made various recommendations to administrative bodies to curb the effects of air pollution on children. “Air pollution is changing what it means to be a child today,” says Sunil Dahia, campaigner with Greenpeace India. “Shutting down schools on high pollution days and limiting physical activities by children to avoid exertion are some of the policies schools in highly polluted cities are currently following,” he says.

While policy interventions can play an important role in improving the overall public health scenario, paediatricians suggest that parents should take their own measures to ensure their children’s health is not affected because of pollution.

“I have had patients who were experiencing respiratory problems due to the pollution levels. Upon my advice, a couple of such families relocated to places like Coonoor where the air is cleaner. Their children have been absolutely healthy since. However, relocating is not an option available to everyone,” says Dr Sanjan John.

“For most Indians, these are inescapable horrors,” said the NYT journalist, in his column, before departure. True as that may be, it is our responsibility to ensure that children have access to one of the most basic elements for existence – clean air.

Tips to reduce impact of air pollution

Limit outdoor activities on smoggy days: Encourage children to play indoors on smoggy days. Physical exertion causes lungs to work more, inhale more air, and thereby take in more pollutants. Avoid the use of bikes and long road trips on such days. Use air pollution masks, if necessary.

Understand your child’s allergens: Have a clear understanding of your child’s allergens and keep a stock of control medication at home.

Sensitise schools: Make sure your child’s school is aware of the impacts of air pollution on children. Schools in highly polluted cities are already working on mechanisms to curb exposure in the campus. Encourage the school management to create green zones within schools and plant more trees.

Sensitise neighbourhood communities: Sensitise neighbourhood dwellers and residents’ associations on the perils of pollution. Avoid activities like burning dry leaves, garbage and other solid waste.

Keep indoors pollution free: Curbing outdoor pollution is only half the job done. Indoor pollution caused by cooking without proper ventilation, faulty cooking stoves, aerosols and dust is equally dangerous for children. Keep your house free of smoke and dust.

Ensure diet is rich in antioxidants: Antioxidants trap free radicals, thereby reducing the impact of toxins on the human body. Have an antioxidant-rich diet.

Make lifestyle changes: Choose public transport or car-pooling, and contribute to the reduction of vehicles on the road.